Photo credit: Richard Thomas
Photo credit: Richard Thomas

Say you’re a city housing inspector and there’s an apartment unit that’s a safety hazard, owing to a tenant with a hoarding problem. You’ve been dealing with this case for a long time. How do you proceed? By … leaning on another tenant who has nothing to do with it?

That’s what happened to Central Hillside renter Shelly Louks on the morning of November 7, when a city housing inspector pasted a bright red “Unlawful Human Occupancy” notice on her door. Louks lives in the downstairs unit of a duplex, while the tenant in violation lives upstairs. 

“I don’t know much about the situation up there,” Louks said.

The notice’s description of the violation is “fire load excessive in upper unit,” making it clear the problem is not in Louks’ unit. (“Fire load” refers to the amount of combustible material per square feet of floor space.) The notice gives her until Dec. 18 to clear out, with a maximum penalty of $1,000 per day. 

Louks said the inspector “told me don’t pay attention to this, that he was just trying to get to the landlord and the lady upstairs. But it’s causing me a lot of grief.” She is elderly, has health problems and is now worried about spending Christmas in her car. 

The verbal reassurance of “don’t pay attention to this” carries little weight compared to a written notice. This is especially the case since earlier conversations with the inspector turned out to be either misunderstood or otherwise meaningless. (More on that below.) The inspector, Greg Smith of the City of Duluth Life Safety Office, did not return The Reader’s phone call on November 7.

The building landlord, Karl Wyant, said the upstairs tenant’s hoarding has been an issue with city housing inspectors for years. But the tenant has made significant progress in clearing out belongings, he said. 

The Life Safety Office issued a condemnation order on February 21, 2017. The tenant’s appeal was denied by the building appeal board on June 14 and again by City Council, which heard a second appeal on July 17. The Council resolution, though affirming the condemnation, states, “The condemnation order was issued for the upper unit building only.” 

The order was scheduled to go into effect October 14. The inspectors had ordered the areas around the windows cleared for emergency exit and wide paths be open for fire and other emergency access. The excessive material was not trash but furniture, books and other belongings, Wyant said. The tenant shipped numerous loads to a storage garage.

In mid-October Wyant sent photos of the cleared areas to Smith, who was out of town. On November 6, Smith responded by text, “Fyi, the photos do not reflect the substantial compliance required. I will be sending a letter that the license for both units will be revoked due to the ongoing fire loading hazard.” 

Wyant texted back, “This is the very first that I heard that there was any threat to the license on the other unit. I also think that these photos do show up substantial reduction and fire load.” He invited Smith to view the apartment.

Smith responded, “The threat to the other unit has been part of the conversation throughout the entire process. The photos reflect 3 areas and do not include the living room or the other two bedrooms (which were contained a lot of clutter). I will come and inspect if substantial reduction of fire load has been done in every area of the into.” (sic)

Wyant countered, “I appreciate that you’re willing to come out and look. However, I asked you this question Point Blank quite some time ago if this affected the other unit and you told me that the condemnation would only be for [the upstairs] unit.”

Smith responded, “I’m sorry but that is incorrect. You and I have had several conversations about the threat of [the upstairs] apartment to the entire building the lower unit and the neighboring property. This was also discussed in the appeals at both the appeals board and City Council.”

Wyant repeated his invitation for Smith to view the property, but there was no further response until the notice was posted the next morning on Louks’ door. 

Oddly, there is no condemnation notice on the upstairs door, despite that unit being the source of the problem. The tenant there has, however, posted her own notice: “No preachers. I read my Bible in private, as Jesus said, and I don’t harass my neighbors about it.” Harassing neighbors, however, apparently is fair game for the City.